Death By Hanging Is Way Too Easy!
By Tripp York, Visiting Assistant Professor, Elon University, Elon, NC
Recently a student in one of my religious studies classes asked what I thought should be the appropriate Christian response to Saddam Hussein's sentencing of death by hanging. I said, "That's way too easy! Torture is what he deserves!" Some students smiled happily while others, thankfully, found my answer to be very problematic. Before I could finish my response many students (well, a few anyway) quickly suggested that capital punishment was wicked enough, but how could one suggest torture?
So I immediately sent them down a less direct road and asked them to give me a definition of justice. Replies varied, but we finally agreed that, at least within the body politic of our culture, the Latin account of justice which is sum cuique-that is, "to each what is due"-was adequate in terms of fairness and, in terms of punishment, or retributive justice. People should get what they deserve (though this distinction may or may not contain problems, let the reader be aware that this in an introductory course in religion).
Of course, attempting to discern what each person is due or "deserves" tends to beg a lot of questions: What is due to Native Americans for being all but annihilated in the name of manifest destiny? What is due to African-Americans for building our wealthy nation for free? What is due to women for their centuries upon centuries of patriarchal oppression? Plus, who gets to decide what is due to these groups and how do we (whoever this "we" is) negotiate what the culprits of such injustices deserve? I am guessing that what a Native American, African-American, or a woman thinks is justice will differ from not just one another, but from the power of a white male-dominated culture that made such injustice possible.
It seems that appeals to justice are always rooted in particularity and it is very difficult to assume some sort of monolithic account of justice that will suffice for all people. For whoever is privileged enough to decide what constitutes justice, the giving and receiving of what one deserves or is due to another, will bear an account that favors a way of seeing the world that will be at odds with various other people's comprehension of justice. So how is one to respond to injustice in light of "relativized" justice?
These problems aside, the class wanted to know what this had to do with the sentencing of Hussein (they were, unsurprisingly, not interested in issues of distributive justice for the crimes committed by our ancestors as well as us in the present). Do we just concede that there is no universal account of justice and let him go unpunished? I attempted to divert the question back on the class by asking them what they thought we deserved as a people whose way of life had been made possible by the genocide and subjugation of various people of differing racial, ethnic, and gendered bodies.
Silence was the primary response (I teach in a primarily white affluent Christian university). So I attempted to convince them that as Christians we should first note that this description of justice, specifically in terms of what one deserves, fails. We must first ask the theological question: What do Christians (or any human being for that matter) deserve? The answer is, and has always been throughout the history of Christianity, death. God created the world good, but we are "evil from youth" and rebel against the Creator. Nevertheless, God is good, just, loving, and holy and, therefore, responds to us with an account of justice that does not give us what we deserve but undoes the entire logic of both retributive and distributive justice altogether.
God's love is not predicated on either punishment or fairness, but on perpetual gratuitous charity. God sends God's only Son to save us (this is God's justice) and we respond by killing him. Nevertheless, because God's justice is also God's charity (justice and charity do not occupy separate spheres within God-God's justice is God's charity) God exercises patience with us and grants us far more than what is due or what we deserve.
Christians, therefore, are called to imitate the character of God and to embody this kind of justice that is charitable justice. We do not simply think about what is due someone, though, at bare minimum we must think this through (that in and of itself would be enough to turn the world upside down); rather, we must attempt to think about the injustices that we have committed and continue to commit and how to repent of these and respond to those we have wronged in a way that reveals how we are redeemed.
In terms of fairness and doing penance for crimes we commit we humble ourselves to the victims of the crime and ask them for help in showing us how to make amends. In terms of punishing those that commit crimes against us subvert this world's understanding of justice by going beyond it by not giving them what they deserve. Rather, we reflect the very grace and forgiveness that God bestows upon us in order that the world may know God.
Back to the case of the recently sentenced to die Saddam Hussein. I said in class that death was too easy. I said that it was too easy because in the first place, in the eyes of his followers, it makes him a martyr, and secondly, it lets us off the hook from doing what God demands of us. I, therefore, concluded that Hussein should be tortured.
However, the class did not initially allow me to finish my sentence on how he should be tortured. I told them that as Christians we never assume that anyone is outside the transforming love of God and that we not only live by the hope that someone like Hussein could undergo a radical conversion (aren't all conversions radical?), but that we must attempt to show God's love to him so that he can have the opportunity to be converted.
So I suggested that we become missionaries and that every day one of us should go to his prison and witness to him. To be honest, I can't think of anything that would probably torture him more than a daily visit of Christians attempting to convert him, but, then again . . . doesn't he deserve it?
Editor's Note: It is ironic, that after the writing of this article, Saddam Hussein endured some forms of torture on the gallows just before he was hanged, adding a footnote to this article.